I remember the first time I was introduced to the bundles of wooden rods that are commonly referred to now as Hot Rods. I was in the youth worship band and the more mature, infinitely patient worship leader handed me a pair and said “Why do you try using these tonight?”
Now we all know the reason why my worship leader and many others came to rely on these Hot Rods: they kind of still sound like drum sticks, but can sound much quieter. From a drummer’s perspective, these rods have positive and negative qualities, but the key to making good use of any alternative to drum sticks is to remember that they are used to not only lower the volume of the drums (at least in most cases), but also to provide a different sonic texture to the songs they’re used in.
With that in mind, having some alternatives at our disposal can open up new possibilities and new musical inspiration! Many times, I’ve found new interest and excitement in a song that we’ve played dozens of times simply by changing out which types of sticks I use. These alternatives also can inspire new methods and techniques for how we play the drums too!
So here are 5 alternatives to drum sticks to consider adding to your own arsenal:
Brushes might be my favorite alternative mallet for the drums. Having that fanned out collection of nylon or metal wires provides so many options for sounds without having to switch out sticks in the middle of a song. The angle of your hands when playing, whether you play with just the tip of the brush or the whole brush, how the brush is rotated in your hand, whether you “bury” the brush in the head after striking it, and dozens of other factors can all provide virtually unlimited sonic possibilities.
These nylon rods sometimes look like traditional Hot Rods, albeit with nylon components instead of wooden. Many times, these rods will have an adjustable band of some type that you can move up and down the bundle of nylon to change the spread of the pieces. One of my favorite tricks with these is to position these adjustment bands in different places on the rod in each hand. For example, I might slide the band down as close as possible to my right hand, so my hi-hat/ride cymbals have a bit more definition (from the sound of the rods all “clicking” together), and keep the band about midway up my left-hand rod, to provide a bit more “body” when I play the snare drum.
Broom sticks are a fairly recent addition to the mallet-world. These are exactly what they sound like: a bundle of straw that is the same material as what goes into old-school brooms. Broom sticks provide very light attack sound, but lots of body – especially when you play rimshots on the snare!
Soft Cymbal Mallets
I love to turn off the wires on my snare drum and play a tom-based groove with soft cymbal mallets. Combining these types of grooves with gentle crashes on big cymbals can add a really cool, almost “distant” sounding vibe to a song. Sometimes I will turn my snares back on and switch to sticks partway through a song- which is very strong and impactful way to support a more “in-your-face” song arrangement.
Let’s not forget the least-expensive mallet ever created – our hands! If you haven’t tried playing your kit with your hands, you really should give it a shot! Keep in mind that you may have to spend some time playing very gently with your hands and slowly work your way up to higher volume levels. Otherwise, playing with your hands might get painful. If you try this and are struggling at getting great sounds, try looking up some videos covering techniques for playing congas/bongos. These techniques also work great for playing drums with your hands.
Bonus Tip: Mix and Match!
Some of my favorite overall drum-kit sounds have been created when I mixed and matched some of the above alternatives. For example, in the intro to “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters, I play a Nylon Rod in my right hand (on the ride cymbal) and a Broom Stick in my left (for the snare drum). These combinations of alternatives can be incredibly inspiring and introduce new musical life into songs that we’ve played tons of times!